The dawn of a new year is always a popular time for planning ahead both personally and professionally. It’s, consequently, a time when many organizations, teams, and individuals within those organizations and teams set goals for the new year. Unfortunately, many annual goals are never achieved. Consider some statistics from Discover Happy Habits on new year’s resolutions:
- Of those who make a New Year’s resolution, after one week 75% are still successful in keeping it.
- After two weeks, the number drops to 71%.
- After one month, the number drops again to 64%.
- And after six months, only 46% of those who make a resolution are still successful in keeping it.
Those aren’t good odds!
Why People Fail to Keep Their Resolutions
There are a variety of reasons resolutions—and goals in general—fail, including losing motivation, failing to track progress and simply forgetting about those goals altogether.
Having a framework to help develop strong goals in the first place is a great way to increase individual, team, or organization’s chances of success in ultimately achieving these goals. In this feature, we discuss one such framework that’s been popular for decades: the S.M.A.R.T framework developed by George T. Doran and first published in the November 1981 issue of Management Review in a paper titled “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives.”
In the last 40 years, there have been a number of slight variations on the original S.M.A.R.T. framework, particularly with respect to the last three letters. In this feature, we’ll use the current, most frequently cited version but note the original version where it differs. If your goals are S.M.A.R.T., they are:
Often goals fail to be achieved because they’re simply too vague or general. In group settings, this can mean that different team members have different understandings of what the goal actually is. Moreover, it’s difficult to gauge the success of a non-specific goal.
For example, if a company sets a goal of “improve product quality,” what does this actually mean? Does it mean fewer returns by customers? Does it mean a lower scrap rate? Higher customer reviews? If the team isn’t clear on what the goal is in a specific sense, it’s going to be difficult for them to work together to achieve that goal—or to determine whether they have, or haven’t.
One challenge with non-specific goals alluded to in the previous section is that they’re difficult, if not impossible, to measure. If goals can’t be effectively measured, it’s extremely difficult to track progress toward achieving them. Tracking success, then, necessarily becomes subjective.
For example, if a goal is to improve customer satisfaction, but there’s no way to measure satisfaction, different stakeholders might rely on unrepresentative anecdotes from individual customers to determine success.
In addition to being able to measure progress on goals generally, it’s also important to be able to measure that progress regularly over time, as opposed to at the end of the applicable time period. This periodic measurement allows for adjustments to be made if progress towards the goal is stalled and efforts need to be readjusted.
Achievable (or Attainable)*
It’s certainly appropriate to set aspirational goals, but setting goals that aren’t achievable only sets the organization up for failure. For example, if an organization is currently bringing in $1 million per year in revenue and has not made any fundamental changes to its business model or any major expansions, it’s unrealistic to set a goal to increase revenue to $100 million per year.
Of course, it would be phenomenal to achieve that goal, but if it’s not possible, two things in particular are likely to happen: first, team members will be ambivalent in their pursuit of the goal, because they don’t expect to achieve it; and second, when the team isn’t able to achieve the goal, morale takes a hit.
(*Originally, “assignable,” meaning it’s possible to designate an owner.)
Some goals sound great as a general concept, but aren’t necessarily important or even relevant for a particular organization. Even if a goal is relevant to an organization, it’s important to prioritize goals based on the limited resources available. For a goal to be relevant, it should be tied to a core business necessity—think of things like increasing revenue, reducing costs, growing margins, customer retention, etc.
For example, it may not be worth it to dedicate money and staff to a goal focused on growing blog traffic if the company can’t guarantee any kind of link between that traffic and a core business goal, such as revenue.
(*Originally, “realistic,” with essentially the same meaning as the current “achievable” element described above.)
Goals can’t be open-ended from a time standpoint. If they are, other priorities will always get in the way of making progress on those goals. Consider a company that has a goal to “expand internationally.” That’s a goal that could be in the back of a leadership team’s collective mind for years if no deadline is attached to it.
Companies that are setting annual goals have already taken a step in the right direction; but, even when some time constraint is placed on a goal, it’s not always the appropriate time constraint. Maybe a year represents such a long time horizon that it effectively feels like it’s not time-bound at all; or maybe a year is too short, and the goal therefore becomes unachievable.
(*Originally, “time-related,” with essentially the same meaning.)
Setting goals is a fundamental part of any strategic planning process, from the organization-level right down to the individual-level. But setting goals doesn’t provide any value unless those goals are actually achieved. There are a variety of reasons individuals and groups fail to achieve their goals. The S.M.A.R.T. framework is designed to help address many of those. Those who use it as a checklist when creating annual goals may find they ultimately have a much better chance of achieving those new year’s resolutions in 2022.
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.